With lethal injection drugs unavailable, Texas should reconsider the death penalty

Chuck Matula

Watch 15 minutes of any Texas House proceeding from the past two months, and you’ll notice that our representatives can’t seem to agree on much. However, according to a 2012 poll conducted by UT and The Texas Tribune, there is at least one thing a majority of our state’s citizens agree on: The death penalty is fairly applied.

Despite the popularity of the practice within the state, the death penalty has its critics abroad, and opposition to lethal injection has thrown obstacles in its way as of late. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced Aug. 1 that, due to voluntary lethal injection drug embargoes by European manufacturers, it is running out of pentobarbital, the drug Texas and several other states use in capital punishment. A new source has yet to be found. This raises the question: Should Texas proceed with its scheduled executions despite the dearth of the required drugs?

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice appears to be ready to press on with the upcoming executions. In a statement to The Daily Texan, TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said “the agency is exploring all options including alternate sources of pentobarbital or another drug for use in the lethal injection process.” The source from which the department will secure the new supply of pentobarbital or other drug remains unclear, but it is not considering other means of execution. Utah carried out a firing squad execution in 2010, although that state’s Legislature made a law requiring all capital punishments thereafter be from lethal injection. Virginia, which leaves the choice of method up to the prisoner, used the electric chair for its most recent execution. 

Most of the executions carried out in the 32 U.S. states that allow executions are done with imported lethal injection compounds. In recent years, however, pharmaceutical firms in Europe have been declining to sell the drug for use in capital punishment because of human rights concerns and public outcry, according to an August report in Time Magazine. In 2011 Texas, Arizona and Mississippi were forced to stop using sodium thiopental because its only American producer did not want its product used in executions. 

Georgia was publicly embarrassed in 2011 when the Drug Enforcement Administration seized its reserves of lethal injection compound, which were revealed to have been imported from a pharmaceutical wholesaler operating out of a driving school in London. An online search of this company (Dream Pharma, Ltd.) reveals an opaque product list of “discontinued products, hard to find products, and products that are licensed in other parts of the world.”

Georgia, rather than finding a supplier of the drug that is not a step above a street-corner pusher, instead passed a law that classifies the identity of the firms supplying lethal injection drugs as a state secret. If the prospect of a state ignobly scrounging around for drugs to perform an execution isn’t embarrassing, a state doing the exact same thing but passing a law to keep it a secret certainly is.

Whether the death penalty is objectively ethical in any circumstance is a complex question I feel unqualified trying to answer. However, the drying up of lethal injection drug sources around the world is a signal of a moral shift that Texas and the other 31 states should heed. When South Africa failed to adjust its apartheid policies in the 1980s to align with shifting global opinions on civil rights, it ended in an embarrassing embargo by the United Nations and left the country’s leaders looking like anachronistic oligarchs. 

If pharmaceutical companies are forgoing profits to avoid the negative associations that come with Texas’ eager use of capital punishment, as the Time Magazine piece reported, Texas needs to reassess its use of the death penalty instead of blithely pressing on with all scheduled executions.

Matula is a marketing major from Austin.